SAN GAETANO
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The Sacking of Rome
The first half of the 1500's is marked by the clash between the greater European powers for supremacy. With the acquisition of the Spanish dominions, the huge empire of Charles V had become dangerous for France. In order to continue the fight, after the defeat of Pavia, an alliance was formed with a series of smaller states like Venice, Florence and the Papal States. The latter endured the consequences with the imperial mercenary troops of the Landsknecht (German for 'servants of the country') heading for Rome, with the vision of fabulous booty, looting all the towns on the way.

What happened in Rome had been preceded by political turmoil. Although the city had seen the signs of this impending disaster coming for a long time, the conflagration caught the population unprepared, but no one could have imagined the extent and harshness of the calamity. The 30.000 Landsknecht troops stood poised on Mount Mario, a hill overlooking Rome, and their leader started inciting them for the coming pillage quoting that there was no richer city on earth to plunder as Rome and how it lay there at their feet for the taking. According to historians, in that spring of 1527, there were approximately 90.000 inhabitants in Rome and only a few lucky people had had the fortune to escape since the Pope had ordered everyone to remain in place. The rich tried to hide their money and precious belongings, and those with young girls in the family tried to find a convent in order to put them in a place of relative safety; the optimists barricaded themselves in their houses and some even started to round up able bodied fighting men with the intention of being able to defend their households. At the dawn of the 6th of May the Imperial army closed ranks and moved down, protected by fog. The onslaught was found to be more difficult than thought by their leaders, but the breaching of the walls and influx of soldiers happened so quickly that the Pope heard the shouts of the invaders while he was still in the apostolic palace. The fighting itself had already reached St.Peter's Square.

The Pope, Clement VII decided to place himself in front of the altar thinking that if he had to die, he would rather die a martyr. But the Monsignors of the Curia and the Cardinals forcibly dragged him away. The fighting had already reached the door of Castle Sant' Angelo and if they had been slower to fetch his Holiness, they would not have made it to the security of the castle. They gathered some provisions in a rush and practically ran through the corridor that leads to the castle. (For those who do not know, the Pope's quarters near St.Peter's Basilica, overlooking St.Peter's square, are connected with Castel Sant' Angelo with a high wall on top of which is a covered corridor. This was built for such emergencies and is still standing nowadays). In order that the enemy might not recognize the white vestments of the Pope, a bishop placed his cape on the shoulders of Clement VII.

At that point Castel Sant' Angelo was already crowded and there reigned an indescribable confusion. Nevertheless before evening no less than three thousand people were barricaded inside, not counting the Cardinals and the Papal court. Then they realized that there were neither provisions nor munitions and they had to make do with the little they could get from plundering some houses and warehouses nearby. A real crowd was gathering seeking access to the castle including gentlemen of the nobility, ladies and merchants. Cardinal Pucci was lucky to enter because a domestic servant pushed him up through a window when he was already half dead from the blows he had received. Cardinal Armellini only made it in because they hoisted him up in a basket and pulled him in through a window after the door had already been locked and barred.
Rome was in the hands of the invaders, who decided to inflict a memorable lesson to the corrupt city, like the Lutherans had preached. It is enough to say that it ended in twelve days of sacking, murder and mayhem that nearly reduced the city to a cemetery. The carnage and sacking ended completely eight months later only because of a plague epidemic forcing the imperial troops to abandon the city. There were, by now less than 30.000 survivors.

The Theatines were also affected by this upheaval caused by the German troops. Daily offerings of food to the community were sporadic and there came a day when Don Gaetano divided the only loaf available into fourteen morsels (there were two visitors) but none complained, with the thought that there were many in the city doing without even that miserly bite. But even though Don Gaetano believed that the Lord always provided, he was not deluded. The only movement in the city was that of the military wagons full of the spoils of war, hastily laden, sometimes spilling some contents. It is easy to imagine how the famished few that were left, jumped from the shadows to pick the scraps up. Some of this could have even been taken to the poor priests in the house on the hilltop, this small providential reprieve keeping the company alive.

In Jesus' life we meet with both Simon the Cyrene and Judas Iscariot. We have just met the 'Simons' in Don Gaetano's life during this difficult time, but he also had his 'Judas'. A family servant from the Thiene household who even knew Gaetano as a child, found himself in Rome during this dreary time. He still imagined that Gaetano had all the family inheritance, and in a plan to be on the good side of the foreign oppressor, he guided a few soldiers to the 'rich' house on the hilltop that they had missed in their forays. When they entered they were faced with the extreme poverty of the place, but the cleanliness and order made them doubt if there was still hidden money to be had. Don Gaetano gave one sad look to the ex-servant and explained that all he had he had given to the poor and the only riches he had remaining were those of the Spirit of God.

The soldiers laid their hands on Don Gaetano and his companions and commenced torturing them. They unclothed Don Gaetano and tied his ankles to a heavy trunk, then tying a long rope under his arms and throwing the end over a beam in the ceiling, they amused themselves pulling him up and suddenly releasing the rope. He endured it all with patience trusting in the Providence of God. The others were similarly tortured and spat upon until their tormentors tired of the entertainment, left. For Don Gaetano the physical pain did not feel as grave as the assault on his purity, even so he exhorted his fellows to bear the suffering they were going through for the love of God. He even prayed God to pardon their tormentors as Christ did on the Cross.

It was not over even after the German soldiers left because it was the Spaniards' turn to look for money. When they did not find any, they took the priests prisoners to an improvised jail in Piazza di Spagna. In this location, the Theatines prayed all day long and this bothered their jailers who took them over to the Vatican and locked them up in the clock tower close to their captain's quarters. This man had the idea not to feed them that they might be forced to tell him where they hid their 'money'. They, in turn, full of holy zeal, forgot the pangs of hunger by singing praises to the Lord. The jailers in this location, heard them and laughed, but their colonel happened to hear them too while he was a dinner guest of the captain. He wanted to see them and was deeply touched by their plight and soon wrote out the order for their release. The Theatines, then twelve in number, were liberated.

Yes, now they were free, but with no roof over their heads since their house in Rome had been ransacked and wrecked and they were in a half deserted city without a penny in their pockets! They agreed to go to Venice where there was a group of 'Divino Amore' and where they thought they would be more welcome. There was also the hospital for the incurables where they could resume their charitable ministry. So, with the help of Agostino da Mula they set out to Civitavecchia and from there to Venice.